TRIPOLI (AFP) ― The United States evacuated its Libyan embassy staff under air cover Saturday as they faced a “real risk” from fierce fighting around Tripoli airport, Secretary of State John Kerry said.
The announcement came hours after the country’s interim government warned the clashes between militia vying for control of the strategic airport were threatening to tear Libya apart.
It was around 5:00 a.m. when the evacuation began, with the sky over the capital filled with the sound of military jets and helicopters, an AFP correspondent reported.
A Libyan security source said the air operation was an escort for the convoy of embassy vehicles on the ground which headed westwards out of Tripoli overland for the safety of neighboring Tunisia.
Fighting around the airport halted abruptly and the convoy sped out of the capital shortly afterwards, witnesses said.
The embassy was considered to be at risk as it is on the airport road, close to the scene of the fighting.
Only on Friday night, the government had warned the country could be torn apart by the clashes.
Calling for an end to the conflict around the airport, the government raised the specter of “the collapse of the country” and “the destruction which could result from ... endless war.”
Kerry said Washington had ordered Saturday’s evacuation “because of the freewheeling militia violence that is taking place in Tripoli.”
“A lot of the violence is around our embassy ― but not on the embassy ― but nevertheless presents a very real risk to our personnel,” he told reporters in Paris, where he was meeting European and Middle Eastern foreign ministers over the crisis in Gaza.
“We will return the moment the security situation permits us to do so. But given the situation ... we want to take every precaution to protect our folks,” Kerry said.